Twenty years on from captaining his nation in their debut experience of the World Cup, which included stunning France and Sweden in an intoxicating run to the quarter-finals, Aliou Cisse wants to lead Senegal to history again – this time in his capacity as manager.
Crowned Africa Cup of Nations champions for the first time in February, the Teranga Lions qualified for that tournament and this one unbeaten.
They are the continent’s strongest, most consistent, and complete team for an age, a by-product of the exceptional Cisse being in situ since 2015 creating a concrete identity.
Before that, he was an assistant coach, and you can stretch back to the 2012 London Olympics to see the foundation of this Senegal advancement.
Another marker of the team is the skill of overcoming adversity together.
Senegal were eliminated from the 2018 World Cup on the basis of yellow cards and were losing finalists in the following year’s AFCON. Those near misses have steeled them with their reaction to become more focused on game management and control.
A squad featuring one of the best goalkeepers and defenders in world football as well as plenty of European experience and youthful promise, Senegal have handled Sadio Mane’s gutting injury-enforced absence well.
Ismaila Sarr, Boulaye Dia and Iliman Ndiaye have combined well in attack and while Cisse has largely opted for a 4-3-3, the manager is tactically fluid with his team able to adapt without much fuss.
As El Hadji Diouf, the star of Senegal’s 2002 vintage and part of Cisse’s close counsel, said: “If you see our squad, we have Edouard Mendy, we have Kalidou Koulibaly, we have a lot of good players in England. Some play in the Championship but they are really Premier League-quality players, like Ismaïla Sarr. It’s for them to show how good they are.”
Senegal, who navigated a tricky group with Netherlands and Ecuador, are a deep elevation in quality to what England have faced in Qatar. They are comfortable in possession, seriously dangerous on the counter, can absorb pressure, and are tactically versatile. Cisse has instilled a fearlessness in the team and a belief that noticeably bursts out of his players.
“We are Senegal, we fear no one,” Koulibaly said after his first international goal sealed second place in Group A.
“Senegal are better when they have their backs against the wall. There are a lot of teams that don’t want to play against us.”
Idrissa Gana Gueye, suspended against England, added: “The last 16 is not the objective. We see beyond that. We have no limits. We have to keep our feet on the ground, not get carried away, and stay focused from the start to the end.
“We have a squad to go far. We’re not going to fix any limits because if we play like we did against Ecuador we can do something really interesting in this competition.”
England have been warned.
Senegal scouting report – Can they shock England?
Senegal have alternated between winning and not winning in their six World Cup meetings with European opponents, losing 2-0 against Netherlands in their most recent game.
For that sequence to continue, England would have to exit the tournament on Sunday.
Courtesy of beating Qatar and Ecuador in the group stages, the Lions of Teranga have won consecutive World Cup matches for the first time – but could they summon the spirit of 2002 to cause another upset?
“Senegal are the African champions for a reason,” Komugisha tells Sky Sports. “They will go into the game against England with a lot of responsibility on their shoulders. They understand they’re coming up against a very well-oiled England team who are hungry for success.
“When you have a team that has Trent Alexander-Arnold coming off the bench and with fans trying to convince Gareth Southgate to start Phil Foden, we are talking about quality. Senegal have players who have experience of playing at the highest level.
“The goalkeeper Edouard Mendy has had a tough season with Chelsea, of course, with Kepa Arrizabalaga being first choice until very close to the World Cup. Against the Netherlands, he had a poor game and was arguably at fault for both goals.
“But he redeemed himself against Qatar and played a crucial role against Ecuador to help take Senegal to the last 16 for the first time since 2002. He is still a senior member in that side and he brings a lot of experience alongside Kalidou Koulibaly.
“Koulibaly had never scored for Senegal but then produced a striker’s goal against Ecuador. I was wondering what he was doing in that position! Of course, against England they will be underdogs but Aliou Cisse was the captain as a player of the team that got to the quarter-finals in 2002.
“He is the first African coach to take Senegal to two World Cups and I remember seeing him at full-time after the game against Ecuador, and he knelt down, looked in the sky and punched the air. He then got up quickly and folded his jacket and headed down the tunnel.
“It showed that for him, Senegal have only just got started. Yes, we can celebrate but we have a lot of work to do. I can assure you that especially without Sadio Mane, his absence has united them more than ever.
“They want to do this for him and they want to do this for their people in February, the streets of Dakar were packed. I’d never seen a parade like that so you saw what it meant for them. 2022 has been a special year for Senegal.
“What better way to announce themselves on the world stage than to defeat England.”
How does this Senegal compare to the Class of ’02?
They’ve beaten the defending champions before in France back in 2002. No one expected that as they were this new team from Arica playing in the opening game.
“I remember the face of Emmanuel Petit that day,” said Komugisha. “The team in 2002 were legendary. You have to go back to 1990 with Cameroon and Roger Milla, or Nigeria’s team of 1994 at USA to talk about such a spirited team.
“With Cameroon in 1990, there is no team who could possibly eclipse them as it was a total surprise. Cameroonians believe Milla is their best player ever to grace a football pitch – no matter what Samuel Eto’o has achieved. For Senegal fans, there is no comparison with the Golden Generation of 2002.
“The current team has done something that no other group of players have done from Senegal in winning the Africa Cup of Nations. They deserve to be respected, but in terms of how they are viewed, the 2002 team really is special.
“Of course, Cisse is part of both. He is like an older brother for these players. Even though Mendy and Koulibaly are much taller than him, you watch them look down when he speaks and listen to his every word.
“They understand that there is a whole new generation that is looking up to them. I remember talking to Sadio Mane a couple of months ago, and he told me that he was in awe of the 2002 team – how much he wanted to emulate the likes of El Hadji Diouf.
“There is a responsibility on this team – and it’s not just about reaching the quarter-finals. It’s about a nation who is hungry for success. It’s a continent that wants to make a statement. Africa only have five slots at the World Cup finals out of 54 countries.
“It’s very important that the African champions beat England.”
Sarr shoulders burden of Mane absence
“In terms of filling Sadio Mane’s position, Ismaila Sarr is playing the same role. He is a dynamic player who will still play if Mane was playing, but now the weight of expectation is really on him. He has to adjust to the way that the coach wants to play, but it also depends on the opponent.
“Against England, a side that is fast and puts a lot of pressure on defenders, it’ll be very interesting to see how Cisse sets up his team. Cisse was a defender by trade so he’ll set up his side to limit chances conceded.
“The loss of Idrissa Gueye in midfield will be felt. He is a big player for Senegal and it complicates things as he comes with Premier League experience. He plays for Everton but he’s played with the likes of Lionel Messi at PSG. He’s someone who knows how to read the game, and make tackles.
“For Senegal, he is also someone who creates, so it’s a big blow.”
Sky Sports’ Nick Wright:
Iliman Ndiaye was adamant. There was to be no back-up plan. Every request to consider an alternative was met with the same response: “I’m going to be a professional footballer.”
Ndiaye was a teenager playing in non-league at the time. In fact, he had not even had a club before a chance encounter following his move to England from Senegal led him to enrol in Boreham Wood’s academy, a month after they had confirmed their annual intake.
But his ambition even then was unshakeable. “From day one, I have to make sure the players understand there’s a plan B if plan A, becoming a footballer, doesn’t work out,” Cameron Mawer, the former head of Boreham Wood’s academy, tells Sky Sports.
“We know the percentages, so where are you going to take your life if it doesn’t happen for you?”
After three years in Boreham Wood’s academy, and following unsuccessful trials with a string of clubs including Southampton and Chelsea, Ndiaye finally got his break with Sheffield United in 2019. Now, just three years later, he is preparing to face England with Senegal in the last 16 of the World Cup.
The boy with no back-up plan did not need one after all, his ambition to make it in football long fulfilled. But this is still only the beginning. Iliman Ndiaye, of Sheffield United and Senegal via France and Boreham Wood, may soon have more new admirers to add to a growing list.
Follow England vs Senegal live on Sky Sports digital platforms on Sunday; kick-off 7pm